After a long fight, black activists in Charleston, South Carolina, succeeded in persuading the city to approve a monument honoring Denmark Vesey for planning a slave rebellion in 1822. Originally, opposition to the monument came mainly from a group of local whites, who protested that Vesey had planned “genocide” for the city’s white people. Then a new voice intruded from a more scholarly quarter–Michael Johnson, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.
At a conference on Denmark Vesey in Charleston in March 2001, Johnson presented new evidence demonstrating that Vesey did not organize a rebellion of Charleston’s slaves back in 1822. Far from instigating a plot to kill white people, Vesey was more likely one of scores of black victims of a conspiracy engineered by the white power structure.
Now a leading academic quarterly has devoted two issues to Johnson’s argument, and historians are asking a question that Charleston will have to answer: If there was no plan to revolt, is there anything left to honor with a monument?
Denmark Vesey was a free black carpenter in Charleston who was executed in 1822 for organizing South Carolina slaves to rise up. The plot included setting fire to the city of Charleston, killing all the white people, seizing ships in the harbor and sailing to Haiti (at the time, the only free black republic in the world). It would have been the biggest slave rebellion in our history, historians say, but Vesey and his comrades were betrayed by an informer.
In a stunning piece of historical detective work, which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, the most prestigious journal of early American history, Johnson concludes that the politically ambitious mayor of Charleston, James Hamilton Jr., used the alleged plot to discredit his political rival, Governor Thomas Bennett Jr., and advance his own career.
The new evidence for Johnson’s revisionist account comes from records of court proceedings in Charleston, in which 131 black men were charged. Eventually, thirty-five were executed. Court documents include testimony by thirty-three slaves, who explained the bold and bloodthirsty plan that has gone down in history as the Vesey conspiracy. But Johnson argues that all the testimony was coerced by beatings and the threat of execution, and thus none of it should be taken at face value. The choice faced by Vesey and the accused slaves was a terrible one: Testify falsely against the other accused men and live, or refuse to testify falsely and die.
Virtually all historians before Johnson have relied on the Official Report of the trial, published after the court proceedings. The Official Report names Vesey “the head of this conspiracy.” Johnson instead used the court transcript itself, which exists in manuscript in the South Carolina state archives. The court proceedings were held in secret; the public and the press were barred from attendance, so the transcript is the only authoritative contemporary source. Johnson shows that the court transcript is different in crucial respects from the Official Report, which describes dramatic scenes where Vesey confronts and questions his accusers and makes statements in his own defense. But the court transcript does not contain a single word of testimony from Vesey. There is nothing suggesting Vesey was even present during the proceedings. Most astonishing, the court transcript does not even refer to a trial of Denmark Vesey. The transcript indicates that the court (consisting of seven men) questioned witnesses about a conspiracy and then decided that Vesey and five slaves were guilty. There was no consensus among the witnesses that Vesey was the head of the plot; at least six named people other than Vesey as the leader.